The not so beautiful game: FIFA Uncovered
With the World Cup having kicked off in Qatar last weekend, I’ve become fascinated with not only the matches and players and scores, but the very logistics of it.
What an undertaking to host teams in purpose-built stadiums in front of an audience of billions. And with the current competition taking place in Qatar (a country whose hosting bid was heavily scrutinised following its selection in 2010), Netflix seems to have picked up on the suspicious atmosphere surrounding FIFA and its politicking.
A documentary series in four parts, FIFA Uncovered covers the organisation’s origins and its long history of contentious backroom deals. Starting with the 1978 World Cup in Argentina as a case-in-point for how football may be politicised by bad actors, the series builds up towards Qatar’s bid - and subsequent success - to host the World Cup in 2022.
A historical narrative spanning decades and including interviews with some of the biggest names in world football, FIFA Uncovered covers nearly every base in its investigation of one of the world’s most powerful organisations.
Remarkably, this means that many controversial figures (Sepp Blatter, Mohammed Bin Hammam, the list goes on) openly and brazenly give their side of the story.
In this sense, it seems like the documentary is setting a trap for some of its interviewees, letting them first tell their side before luring them into contradicting themselves.
But in the scope of the documentary, this never really seems to occur. Controversial figures are interviewed but never truly confronted, making the series’ storytelling more descriptive than journalistic in and of itself.
But this narrative process might still make football fans queasy. FIFA Uncovered lets events speak for themselves, taking only minor asides to emphasise how shady some of the organisation’s past ploys have been.
Stories of blatant bribery amongst the Executive Committee (because yes, organised football is ruled by a committee) and geopolitical power plays involving national governments are nothing new for FIFA.
The series does start off a little slow in detailing the history of FIFA itself. But a tonal shift towards the corrupt, in which the organisation becomes more and more suspect, builds up towards a slow and gradual sinking feeling. It soon becomes obvious why the 2010 Qatar bid went the way it went.
There are times when the four-part series still drags on a little, going into minute detail of events to make a point that’s already been established - namely, that FIFA has a certain corruption problem.
The most egregious examples, most of which occurred under the leadership of Sepp Blatter, are put in the spotlight while you patiently wait to get to the Qatar bid and the current state of world football in light of the allusions made in the documentary.
And yet Blatter himself is in the documentary and allowed to work his charm - going so far as to shed a tear when speaking about meeting Nelson Mandela. He’s certainly asked some tough questions later on but is never really put on the spot, resulting in FIFA Uncovered being a little toothless in the face of the most contentious World Cup in living memory.
FIFA Uncovered’s primary interest lies in covering some serious football lore, so for those looking for added insight into the current World Cup in Qatar, episodes one and two could be given a miss.
But for those interested in global football at large or in need of deep, contextual insight into why the World Cup is being held in Qatar in November, FIFA Uncovered will be fascinating and disheartening in equal measure.
In this sense, there’s a good chance that the series might make a nihilist out of anyone holding a romanticised view of football as a sport which transcends greed and corruption and profit motives. Just as with most any other venture involving money, it’s a world ruled by men much more interested in personal kickbacks than the sport itself.
So while FIFA Uncovered doesn’t quite energetically match the furore surrounding the current World Cup, it nevertheless underscores that dodgy backroom deals aren’t exactly breaking news in the world of international football. And this kind of reporting, if a little more narrative than biting, came out at an important time.
The scandals surrounding the 2022 World Cup and FIFA at large risk being forgotten when the matches start. But continued scrutiny and well-researched criticism like that of FIFA Uncovered maintain the pressure on the organisation and those seeking to exploit the marketability of the world’s most popular sport.